Does your church structure stifle the life of the Spirit?
Many pastors today are being let down by their church structures. Instead of providing real relationships, they have become examples of non-relational institutional Christianity. They long for mutual accountability in genuine relationships, but have only been handed rules, regulations and top-down authoritarian control. The ensuing loneliness and pastoral isolation is tragic.
Supporting the Life of the Vine
Structures are necessary in every walk of life. It is part of the divine order. The Kingdom of God is the supreme example. We have God-given guidelines, frameworks, injunctions and prohibitions. The anarchical tendency in our world in general has also come into Christian communities. Accountability, responsibility and the denial of the self in favour of the community, are all part of contemporary aversion to what is called “organised religion”.
With that, we witness the promotion of a falsely idealised view of New Testament Christianity with no structure, just freedom to follow the Spirit, which is sometimes adopted as a Christianised version of “doing your own thing”. The expressive individualism that dominates Western culture has come to the Church. This is not the Kingdom of God in which we honour one another, serve one another, prefer one another and submit to one another in the fear of Christ. But what kind of church structure can promote that quality of corporate life?
The question is not, ‘Do I walk with structure in my spiritual calling?’ But, ‘What kind of structure should I follow and be a part of?’
On offer today, is a wide variety of structures. These range from loose, open arrangements where the boundaries are hardly visible, to tightly controlled organisations which are closed, cold, non-relational and self-serving. This latter error diminishes the preeminence of Christ, who is the Head of his Church. It exalts human structure above the Lord. Probably, we can all think of examples of authoritarian leadership that exists merely to maintain personal agendas and the organisational status quo, and does this even when God has long left the committee meeting.
The saying goes that if the Holy Spirit departed from certain churches and denominations today, things would more or less carry on the same tomorrow.
So what’s the answer? Not an easy question. I picture a grapevine, like the one growing on the trellis (wooden framework) in my childhood home in Kalgoorlie, West Australia. As a family, we would sit under its shade in the scorching heat of the central West. Spraying the vine with water and inducing a cooling effect like outdoor air conditioning. Then eating chilled grapes straight from the vine.
This, for me, is a picture of the Christian congregation. The fruit of the vine comes from the life that’s in the vine, not the structure that supports it. The way I evaluate church structures is by examining closely the leadership, their rules and their attitudes. The moment the structure which is supposed to support the vine and the life it carries becomes confused with the vine itself – that moment the structure has become dangerous.
The tendency is to confuse the house we have built with the house that only God can build as his dwelling place. We can easily denounce the pagan temple structures of polytheism where the best that humans can do only attracts false deities. But we also ought to include in this Christian organisations that have forgotten why they really exist. Not to perpetuate and to glorify what they have built. But examine their structures frequently, and at every point, make sure that what they have built for God truly supports the life of God in his real Temple, the people of God.
Ways of testing our structures:
- Do they exist (in practice) for the upbuilding of believers and the flourishing of the life of Christ in Christian communities?
- Do they uphold the preeminence of Christ as the Head of the Church?
- Do they exist as flexible and renewable means to the chief end which is the glory of Christ in his Church, or are they merely static ends in themselves?
- Do they isolate believers from each other by demanding loyalty to the organisation rather than the kingdom of God?
- Are they founded on true fellowship and relational holiness, or are people held captive by the worldly ambition promoted by the structure?
- Are they ruled by self-serving and unaccountable people whose agenda is to promote themselves and maintain their own vested interests?
- Are they truly releasing and enabling structures so that every person can flourish in community living, serving and sharing their substance and their spiritual gifts.
The choice is really between two options. Structures that are built on genuine cross-forged and Father-faced relationships. Or, structures that are based on human pride and ambition. Every church, denomination and Christian organisation will ultimately stand or fall by how consistently they choose to be in one category or the other.